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Bruins live to fight another day next fall

It was the most striking beauty to hit this town in years, a Rose Bowl bathed with vivid blues and striking reds, from field to stands to sky, a rivalry as a painting.

Oh, and purple.

UCLA brought the purple.

In a game that will be remembered for the return of the crosstown colors Saturday, USC scored most of the points, but UCLA applied all the welts.

The Trojans outplayed, outclassed and outscored, by a count of 28-7.

The Bruins, however, outfought.

“Man, from start to finish, we did fight them,” said Bruins linebacker Reggie Carter, still sweating in a T-shirt and uniform pants nearly an hour after the game.

The Bruins outworked.

“We were huge underdogs, but that didn’t matter to us, we never stopped playing,” said cornerback Michael Norris, his eyes still wide.

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The Bruins out-and-out burned, from the marching band’s knee-pumping opening act to Rick Neuheisel’s resilient final speech.

Moments after the game ended, as is his custom, the UCLA coach grabbed a microphone to address the fans.

Only this game had long since been lost, and most of the UCLA fans had departed, leaving the Rose Bowl to a patch of blue surrounded by waves of cardinal, and the booing began with Neuheisel’s first syllable.

He didn’t care, he kept talking.

“We’re going back to work!” he shouted through the distant jeers. “We’ll see you in September. We’ll make you proud.”

I believe him.

Watching the Bruins hustle where they once walked, watching them care where they once didn’t, watching a team win two fewer games but experience a complete turnaround, I believe him.

They finish 4-8, no bowl, sitting home when Karl Dorrell was usually not, but their ceiling is higher, sitting atop a room that is far more charged.

Watching them run out to midfield to challenge the Trojans at halftime Saturday, I became convinced.

USC was dancing and shouting as the third-quarter kickoff approached, the entire team moving toward the center of the field, bouncing together like a giant red trampoline.

It was similar to the way both teams bounced here two years ago, during a late television timeout, a dance that brought the teams helmet to helmet in a memorable moment in UCLA’s upset win.

“We thought USC was doing it because the last time it happened, they lost, so they were making up for it,” Carter said. “We thought they were disrespecting us.”

So these Bruins immediately charged the Trojans and began bouncing in their faces before the officials broke it up.

USC players said later that they were just dancing to a tune on the loudspeaker. UCLA guys weren’t buying it.

“Our team felt like we weren’t going to be shown up here at the Rose Bowl, and our team matched that,” Neuheisel said.

They matched it everywhere Saturday, from the Trojans’ backfield to the receivers, hit after hit, little guy peppering big guy.

For the record, USC outgained UCLA, 478-157, so rarely did little guy get results.

But they kept peppering, with Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez knocked down so much, he actually had to leave the game for a play.

“We could all see how slow he got up,” Norris said. “Slower every time.”

They peppered the receivers so much that in the second half, they caught only four passes, with Sanchez completing only 10 of 24 after the first quarter, with USC held scoreless after the first three minutes of the third quarter.

“They weren’t going to back down for nothing,” said the Trojans’ Patrick Turner, who caught a touchdown pass.

They sometimes peppered so much, they got salty, committing 11 penalties for 117 yards, some of which led to USC scores.

But I have a feeling that, at this stage in his depleted program, Neuheisel is willing to ignore a flag if it means embracing the effort.

“Coach is cooler than a fan, we love him and play hard for him,” Carter said.

Of course, USC played much, much better, because USC is much, much better.

Don’t confuse applause for UCLA’s effort with any sort of criticism of USC’s victory. The Trojans could have let down but didn’t.

The Trojans aren’t thrilled with going back to the Rose Bowl game, but they’ll be fired up enough to dominate Penn State next month.

Don’t believe any of this “trap game” stuff. With a month to prepare, PeteCo will scheme JoePa out of the back of the press box.

Even with Steve Sarkisian acting as a lame-duck coordinator -- can you believe Washington didn’t demand that he start now? -- the Trojans will have enough firepower from an offense that will include, for maybe the first time this season, a reasonably healthy Sanchez.

And against the best defense in the country, how is Penn State going to score enough?

The only way the Bruins scored Saturday was on a trick play after a fumble recovery.

Their offense is so bad, coordinator Norm Chow waited all of six plays to call a pass from a wide receiver to a running back, with Dominique Johnson hitting Kahlil Bell on a 21-yard touchdown toss.

Their offense is so bad, Johnson has one more touchdown pass than quarterback Kevin Craft threw in his last five games combined.

“We’re going to hang in there, get more players, get better,” Chow promised. “Freshmen become sophomores, and sophomores become juniors, and . . . “

And Bruins become men. Hard to believe, but harder to ignore.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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